One agreeable afternoon in late autumn two young men stood together onCanal Street, closing a conversation that had evidently begun withinthe club-house which they had just quitted.
“There’s big money in it, Offdean,” said the elder of the two. “I wouldn’t have you touch it if there was n’t. Why, they tell me Patchly ’spulled a hundred thousand out of the concern a’ready.”
“That may be,” replied Offdean, who had been politely attentive to thewords addressed to him, but whose face bore a look indicating that hewas closed to conviction. He leaned back upon the clumsy stick whichhe carried, and continued: “It’s all true, I dare say, Fitch; but adecision of that sort would mean more to me than you’d believe if Iwere to tell you. The beggarly twenty-five thousand’s all I have, andI want to sleep with it under my pillow a couple of months at leastbefore I drop it into a slot.”
“You’ll drop it into Harding & Offdean’s mill to grind out the pitifultwo and a half per cent commission racket; that’s what you’ll do inthe end, old fellow—see if you don’t.”
“Perhaps I shall; but it’s more than likely I shan’t. We’ll talkabout it when I get back. You know I’m off to north Louisiana in themorning”—
“No! What the deuce”—
“Oh, business of the firm.”
“Write me from Shreveport, then; or wherever it is.”
“Not so far as that. But don’t expect to hear from me till you see me.I can’t say when that will be.”
Then they shook hands and parted. The rather portly Fitch boardeda Prytania Street car, and Mr. Wallace Offdean hurried to the bankin order to replenish his portemonnaie, which had been materiallylightened at the club through the medium of unpropitious jack-pots andbobtail flushes.
He was a sure-footed fellow, this young Offdean, despite an occasionalfall in slippery places. What he wanted, now that he had reached histwenty-sixth year and his inheritance, was to get his feet well plantedon solid ground, and to keep his head cool and clear.
With his early youth he had had certain shadowy intentions of shapinghis life on intellectual lines. That is, he wanted to; and he meantto use his faculties intelligently, which means more than is at onceapparent. Above all, he would keep clear of the maelstroms of sordidwork and senseless pleasure in which the average American business manmay be said alternately to exist, and which reduce him, naturally, to arather ragged condition of soul.
Offdean had done, in a temperate way, the usual things which young mendo who happen to belong to good society, and are possessed of moderatemeans and healthy instincts. He had gone to college, had traveled alittle at home and abroad, had frequented society and the clubs, andhad worked in his uncle’s commission-house; in all of which employmentshe had expended much time and a modicum of energy.
But he felt all through that he was simply in a preliminary stageof being, one that would develop later into something tangible andintelligent, as he liked to tell himself. With his patrimony oftwenty-five thousand dollars came what he felt to be the turning-pointin his life,—the time when it behooved him to choose a course, and toget himself into proper trim to follow it manfully and consistently.
When Messrs. Harding & Offdean determined to have some one look afterwhat they called “a troublesome piece of land on Red River,” WallaceOffdean requested to be intrusted with that special commission ofland-inspector.
A shadowy, ill-defined piece of land in an unfamiliar part of hisnative State, might, he hoped, prove a sort of closet into which hecould retire and take counsel with his inner and better self.
In the days of Lucien Santien and his hundred slaves, it had been verysplendid in the wealth of its thousand acres. But the war did its work,of course. Then Jules Santien was not the man to mend such damage asthe war had left. His three sons were even less able than he had beento bear the weighty inheritance of debt that came to them with thedismantled plantation; so it was a deliverance to all when Harding &Offdean, the New Orleans creditors, relieved them of the place with theresponsibility and indebtedness which its ownership had entailed.
Hector, the eldest, and Grégoire, the youngest of these Santien boys,had gone each his way. Placide alone tried to keep a desultory footholdupon the land which had been his and his forefathers’. But he too wasgiven to wandering—within a radius, however, which rarely took him sofar that he could not reach the old place in an afternoon of travel,when he felt so inclined.
There were acres of open land cultivated in a slovenly fashion, but sorich that cotton and corn and weed and “cocoa-grass” grew rampant ifthey had only the semblance of a chance. The negro quarters were at thefar end of this open stretch, and consisted of a long row of old andvery crippled cabins. Directly back of these a dense wood grew, andheld much mystery, and witchery of sound and shadow, and strange lightswhen the sun shone. Of a gin-house there was left scarcely a trace;only so much as could serve as inadequate shelter to the miserabledozen cattle that huddled within it in winter-time.
A dozen rods or more from the Red River bank stood the dwelling-house,and nowhere upon the plantation had time touched so sadly as here. Thesteep, black, moss-covered roof sat like an extinguisher above theeight large rooms that it covered, and had come to do its office sopoorly that not more than half of these were habitable when the rainfell. Perhaps the live-oaks made too thick and close a shelter aboutit. The verandas were long and broad and inviting; but it was well toknow that the brick pillar was crumbling away under one corner, thatthe railing was insecure at another, and that still another had longago been condemned as unsafe. But that, of course, was not the cornerin which Wallace Offdean sat the day following his arrival at theSantien place. This one was comparatively secure. A gloire-de-Dijon,thick-leaved and charged with huge creamy blossoms, grew and spreadhere like a hardy vine upon the wires that stretched from post topost. The scent of the blossoms was delicious; and the stillness thatsurrounded Offdean agreeably fitted his humor that asked for rest. Hisold host, Pierre Manton, the manager of the place, sat talking to himin a soft, rhythmic monotone; but his speech was hardly more of aninterruption than the hum of the bees among the roses. He was saying:—
“If it would been me myse’f, I would nevair grumb’. W’en a chimblybreck, I take one, two de boys; we patch ’im up bes’ we know how. Wekeep on men’ de fence’, firs’ one place, anudder; an’ if it would n’be fer dem mule’ of Lacroix—tonnerre! I don’ wan’ to talk ‘bout demmule’. But me, I would n’ grumb’. It’s Euphrasie, hair. She say dat’sall fool nonsense fer rich man lack Hardin’-Offde’n to let a piece o’lan’ goin’ lack dat.”
“Euphrasie?” questioned Offdean, in some surprise; for he had not yetheard of any such person.
“Euphrasie, my li’le chile. Escuse me one minute,” Pierre added,remembering that he was in his shirt-sleeves, and rising to reach forhis coat, which hung upon a peg near by. He was a small, square man,with mild, kindly face, brown and roughened from healthy exposure. Hishair hung gray and long beneath the soft felt hat that he wore. When hehad seated himself, Offdean asked:—
“Where is your little child? I have n’t seen her,” inwardly marvelingthat a little child should have uttered such words of wisdom as thoserecorded of her.
“She yonder to Mme. Duplan on Cane River. I been kine espectin’ hairsence yistiday—hair an’ Placide,” casting an unconscious glance downthe long plantation road. “But Mme. Duplan she nevair want to letEuphrasie go. You know it’s hair raise’ Euphrasie sence hair po’ madie’, Mr. Offde’n. She teck dat li’le chile, an’ raise it, sem lackshe raisin’ Ninette. But it’s mo’ ‘an a year now Euphrasie say dat’sall fool nonsense to leave me livin’ ‘lone lack dat, wid nuttin’ ‘cep’dem nigger’—an’ Placide once a w’ile. An’ she came yair bossin’! Mygoodness!” The old man chuckled, “Dat’s hair been writin’ all demletter’ to Hardin’-Offde’n. If it would been me myse’f”—
Placide seemed to have had a foreboding of ill from the start when hefound that Euphrasie began to interest herself in the condition of theplantation. This ill feeling voiced itself partly when he told herit was none of her lookout if the place went to the dogs. “It’s goodenough for Joe Duplan to run things en grand seigneur, Euphrasie;that’s w’at’s spoiled you.”
Placide might have done much single-handed to keep the old place inbetter trim, if he had wished. For there was no one more clever than heto do a hand’s turn at any and every thing. He could mend a saddle orbridle while he stood whistling a tune. If a wagon required a brace ora bolt, it was nothing for him to step into a shop and turn out one asdeftly as the most skilled blacksmith. Any one seeing him at work withplane and rule and chisel would have declared him a born carpenter. Andas for mixing paints, and giving a fine and lasting coat to the side ofa house or barn, he had not his equal in the country.
This last talent he exercised little in his native parish. It was in aneighboring one, where he spent the greater part of his time, that hisfame as a painter was established. There, in the village of Orville, heowned a little shell of a house, and during odd times it was Placide’sgreat delight to tinker at this small home, inventing daily newbeauties and conveniences to add to it. Lately it had become a preciouspossession to him, for in the spring he was to bring Euphrasie there ashis wife.
Maybe it was because of his talent, and his indifference in turning itto good, that he was often called “a no-account creole” by thriftiersouls than himself. But no-account creole or not, painter, carpenter,blacksmith, and whatever else he might be at times, he was a Santienalways, with the best blood in the country running in his veins. Andmany thought his choice had fallen in very low places when he engagedhimself to marry little Euphrasie, the daughter of old Pierre Mantonand a problematic mother a good deal less than nobody.
Placide might have married almost any one, too; for it was the easiestthing in the world for a girl to fall in love with him,—- sometimesthe hardest thing in the world not to, he was such a splendid fellow,such a careless, happy, handsome fellow. And he did not seem to mindin the least that young men who had grown up with him were lawyersnow, and planters, and members of Shakespeare clubs in town. Noone ever expected anything quite so humdrum as that of the Santienboys. As youngsters, all three had been the despair of the countryschool-master; then of the private tutor who had come to shackle them,and had failed in his design. And the state of mutiny and revoltthat they had brought about at the college of Grand Coteau when theirfather, in a moment of weak concession to prejudice, had sent themthere, is a thing yet remembered in Natchitoches.
And now Placide was going to marry Euphrasie. He could not recall thetime when he had not loved her. Somehow he felt that it began theday when he was six years old, and Pierre, his father’s overseer,had called him from play to come and make her acquaintance. He waspermitted to hold her in his arms a moment, and it was with silentawe that he did so. She was the first white-faced baby he rememberedhaving seen, and he straightway believed she had been sent to him as abirthday gift to be his little play-mate and friend. If he loved her,there was no great wonder; every one did, from the time she took herfirst dainty step, which was a brave one, too.
She was the gentlest little lady ever born in old Natchitoches parish,and the happiest and merriest. She never cried or whimpered for ahurt. Placide never did, why should she? When she wept, it was whenshe did what was wrong, or when he did; for that was to be a coward,she felt. When she was ten, and her mother was dead, Mme. Duplan, theLady Bountiful of the parish, had driven across from her plantation,Les Chêniers, to old Pierre’s very door, and there had gathered up thisprecious little maid, and carried her away, to do with as she would.
And she did with the child much as she herself had been done by.Euphrasie went to the convent soon, and was taught all gentle things,the pretty arts of manner and speech that the ladies of the “SacredHeart” can teach so well. When she quitted them, she left a trail oflove behind her; she always did.
Placide continued to see her at intervals, and to love her always.One day he told her so; he could not help it. She stood under one ofthe big oaks at Les Chêniers. It was midsummer time, and the tangledsunbeams had enmeshed her in a golden fret-work. When he saw herstanding there in the sun’s glamour, which was like a glory upon her,he trembled. He seemed to see her for the first time. He could onlylook at her, and wonder why her hair gleamed so, as it fell in thosethick chestnut waves about her ears and neck. He had looked a thousandtimes into her eyes before; was it only to-day they held that sleepy,wistful light in them that invites love? How had he not seen it before?Why had he not known before that her lips were red, and cut in fine,strong curves? that her flesh was like cream? How had he not seen thatshe was beautiful? “Euphrasie,” he said, taking her hands,—“Euphrasie,I love you!”
She looked at him with a little astonishment. “Yes; I know, Placide.”She spoke with the soft intonation of the creole.
“No, you don’t, Euphrasie. I did n’ know myse’f how much tell jus’ now.”
Perhaps he did only what was natural when he asked her next if sheloved him. He still held her hands. She looked thoughtfully away,unready to answer.
“Do you love anybody better?” he asked jealously. “Any one jus’ as wellas me?” “You know I love papa better, Placide, an’ Maman Duplan jus’ aswell.”
Yet she saw no reason why she should not be his wife when he asked herto.
Only a few months before this, Euphrasie had returned to live with herfather. The step had cut her off from everything that girls of eighteencall pleasure. If it cost her one regret, no one could have guessed it.She went often to visit the Duplans, however; and Placide had gone tobring her home from Les Chêniers the very day of Offdean’s arrival atthe plantation.
They had traveled by rail to Natchitoches, where they found Pierre’sno-top buggy awaiting them, for there was a drive of five miles to bemade through the pine woods before the plantation was reached. Whenthey were at their journey’s end, and had driven some distance; upthe long plantation road that led to the house in the rear, Euphrasieexclaimed:—
“W’y, there’s some one on the gall’ry with papa, Placide!”
“Yes; I see.”
“It looks like some one f’om town. It mus’ be Mr. Gus Adams; but I don’see his horse.”
“‘T ain’t no one f’om town that I know. It’s boun’ to be some one f’omthe city.”
“Oh, Placide, I should n’ wonder if Harding & Offdean have sent someone to look after the place at las’,” she exclaimed a little excitedly.
They were near enough to see that the stranger was a young man of verypleasing appearance. Without apparent reason, a chilly depression tookhold of Placide.
“I tole you it was n’ yo’ lookout f’om the firs’, Euphrasie,” he saidto her.
Wallace Offdean remembered Euphrasie at once as a young person whomhe had assisted to a very high perch on his club-house balcony theprevious Mardi Gras night. He had thought her pretty and attractivethen, and for the space of a day or two wondered who she might be. Buthe had not made even so fleeting an impression upon her; seeing which,he did not refer to any former meeting when Pierre introduced them.
She took the chair which he offered her, and asked him very simply whenhe had come, if his journey had been pleasant, and if he had not foundthe road from Natchitoches in very good condition.